July 13, 2006
Axis Denied: What should we learn from the demise of Willow’s Next-Gen ministry?
Ten years ago the leaders of Willow Creek Community Church realized that 18-30 year olds, popularly known as Gen X, were largely missing from their church. In response, the "seeker-driven" church launched Axis to help "the Next Gen connect with God through high-intensity weekend services with relevant teaching, worship and art." Willow became one of the first churches to experiment with the church-within-a-church model, and many others followed Willow's example hoping to reach Gen X.
This week Willow Creek announced the end of Axis.
Gene Appel, lead pastor of Willow's South Barrington campus, said that leaders have been asking God for months for a new vision for Axis, and they sense an emerging desire to be a "diverse church with an intergenerational vision." If Axis's launch ten years ago signified the start of the next-generation-church-within-a-church phenomenon, what are we to make of Axis's demise? Has Gen X ministry been a failure, or was Axis a victim of its own success - a transition ministry that has outlived its usefulness?
Dan Kimball, pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California, and author of Emerging Church and Emerging Worship, has written about the end of Axis. In part one of his post, Kimball discusses why the church-within-a-church model is difficult to maintain.
I don't know all the behind the scenes discussions that led to the decision to end the Axis worship gathering at Willow Creek. I have talked with some of the Axis staff throughout the years, so I have a general understanding of the history and changes made since it started. I even wrote a chapter specifically about Axis in the Emerging Worship book. But whatever all the reasons for shutting down Axis were, I can say, it saddened my heart. But I was not at all surprised. In fact, I am surprised it didn't end sooner.
With Axis, Willow Creek was one of the first churches to experiment with launching an alternative worship gathering within an existing church. Over ten years ago, Willow was noticing that value differences and cultural differences between generations were emerging. Despite the great success Willow was having with older generations, they realized they needed new expressions of evangelism, worship, teaching, learning, and spiritual formation for those younger people they were not seeing in the church. Needing new expressions of ministry for different cultural populations should be a natural thing. To my understanding this was the reason behind the birthing of Willow Creek itself back in the seventies.
However, when launching a new worship gathering within an existing church, the questions to ask should be: Are the changes occurring mainly generational (music style, appearance, language), or are the changes bigger? Is a shift in worldview(s) occurring? If it is just a generational change, then you might as well just change the music, add some candles, create hip environment, and play a video of the senior pastor. That's changing the style, and I think that if we really peeled back the layers of the majority of these alternative services within existing churches, that is what we would find.
Many of the generation-focused worship gatherings may have a younger pastor with a goatee or funky glasses that wears his shirt un-tucked and looks like he could be a band member from Death Cab for Cutie, and this leader may have some freedom within that service, but he or she can't really make holistic changes to the church at large because their ministry needs to fold into the systems and values of the larger church. Pastors of generational ministries typically report to the senior or executive pastor at a church. That is the power structure for allowing control and change in these situations. To some degree, and I say this with respect, it ends up shaping these alternative worship gatherings into an extended youth ministry, or mini-me hipper version of the main worship gathering.
However, if the changes in culture are bigger than merely generational styles, it is absurd to think that creating a different aesthetic environment and changing the music is really being missional. To be missional to a cultural population that is different in more than age, means looking at everything through a different lens. It means looking at community differently, spiritual formation, evangelism, membership, leadership, communication all through the lens of the new culture and bringing the gospel to them in the unique way that connects to them as any missionary would. This means that the whole culture of a church will change, not just what happens in a worship gathering. That is why only changing the worship gathering is not the answer.
This is why so many worship gatherings launched within a church last only 3-5 years. Very few last any longer than that. They end up imploding because if the new worship gathering is truly rethinking everything as a missionary would to a different culture, then the new ministry with different values struggles to squeeze into the existing church structure's cultural form of ministry. Because the power lies with the senior leadership, the decisions are made from top to bottom, and the alternative worship gatherings are not at the top.
Ironically, the very thing (the need for something different) that the senior leadership was excited about in birthing the new worship gathering, ends up causing all the tension. This usually happens after lots of conflict and difficulty. I have heard too many stories about the sad things that have occurred in these situations.